The experience of meaning in life is fundamental; it is hard wired into the way the brain works, not a nice to have or a luxury.
The evolutionary psychologist Eric Klinger argues that the brain evolved to help us understand our environment during the pursuit of goals, working to sort out “ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant or channelled into action”.
At its simplest level, ‘meaning’ indicates that we understand how to respond to stimuli in terms of goal‐directed action. Meaning is therefore a process of sense‐making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world.
Understanding the ‘meaning’ of things is the brain’s top priority. The experience of not understanding something brings a sense of unease, because we do not know how to respond. Conversely, when something is subsequently understood we experience the ‘aha!’ response, which is pleasant. When someone tells me I am ‘making sense’ (a rare occurrence) then I experience it as a compliment. ‘I know what you mean!’ is often reassuring.
Once humans developed language then ‘meaning’ took on a metaphorical significance. We started to consider the ‘meaning of life’. But the priority remains the same:
“meaning is a matter of human understanding, regardless of whether we are talking about the meaning of someone’s life…or the meaning of a word or sentence” (Klinger, p29).
In this sense meaning can only truly be constructed in context. As Mead and Morris argued, “the meaning of a gesture by one organism is found in the response of another.” For humans especially this means meaning is socially constructed. Gergen and Gergen (1988) suggest that coherent self-narratives are essential for establishing credibility and maintaining relationships.
Using this definition meaning is different from purpose. Purpose leads us to encounter a mass of different stimuli in pursuit of our goals. Meaning may or may not ensue from these encounters, but the process of evaluation (i.e. cognition) is ongoing (e.g. Ryff & Singer, 1989a). Comprehension, or meaning, is the outcome of purpose. Meaning in life is understanding ourselves in the context of the world around us.
How to Build Meaning at Home and Work
Following this argument, meaning can only be enhanced by increasing our understanding of ourselves, others and our place in the world. For work to feel meaningful, we must develop our ability to understand ourselves, our role and our contribution to the organisation and / or the wider world.
In my research, I identified 4 clear predictors of meaning in work:
- Having a strong sense of purpose. The more we can develop a clear understanding of what our career goals are, what we really want to achieve and how we want to be known at work (i.e. our values) the more we will experience work as meaningful.
- Developing a ‘transcendent’ purpose. We all have a purpose at work, even if that is as simple as earning enough to feed ourselves and our families. This is what’s called a self-related purpose. However, by developing a purpose which transcends ourselves, meaning is likely to be greater than if a narrower, self-related purpose is pursued. That’s because a transcendent purpose necessarily forces us to think about and engage with the world, which over time leads to more understanding of the world and our place within it. For example, a call centre worker with a self‐related purpose may try to simply get through each day. One with a more transcendent purpose is more likely to try and genuinely help each caller, whatever their problem. Over time, the former is likely to learn little about the world and may experience meaning only with satisfied or compliant callers, or when talking with colleagues. The latter is likely to learn more about the callers and eventually what works to help them. Over time, their job will seem more meaningful. In my research, having ‘making money’ as a purpose negatively predicted meaning in work. However, those with a more transcendent purpose (like helping to improve the world) had significantly higher meaning. The implication is clear: if you want to find work meaningful, then you need to find a job or identify a purpose which is about more than purely making money or self‐advancement.
- Work role fit. Many people fall into a job and then pursue a career because ‘that’s what they’ve always done’. This works for some people, but it is not a reliable strategy. What works better is a more strategic approach to understanding our own fit with a role and the unique contribution that we can make to the organisation’s objectives. How well someone’s abilities, interests and values match the requirements of the organisation is an important predictor of meaning (e.g., Finegan, 2000). In addition, those who understand how they can use their strengths on a day to day basis in pursuit of the organisation’s goals will experience higher levels of meaning. To paraphrase Aristotle:
“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”
My research showed that if someone really understands their role in an organisation and the strengths they bring to that role then they are also likely to experience greater meaning in work.
- Psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility (PF) is technically defined (Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, Bissett, Pistorello, Toarmino, 2004) as:
“contacting the present moment as a conscious human being, and, based on what the situation affords, acting in accordance with one’s chosen values”
In plain English, PF is the skill of acting in line with one’s long term values, as opposed to being controlled by short-term thoughts and feelings. There are over 100 randomised control trials that show that those high in PF are more willing to experience difficult thoughts and emotions in pursuit of difficult, long-term goals and values, and this includes the workplace (e.g. Bond & Flaxman, 2006). People who develop PF become better able to take advantage of opportunities to grow, develop and learn because they are not as diverted by uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. As learning is key to comprehension, those high in PF eventually go on to develop more meaningful careers and lives. PF is a key psychological skill for the 21st century which enables greater meaning in work and life.
~Rob Archer is a Chartered Psychologist, researcher and conference speaker on the subject of meaning in work, resilience, psychological flexibility and applying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to the workplace. He is the founder of The Career Psychologist, which helps people to get unstuck from meaningless jobs and move forward with purpose.
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